The Tragic And Violent History Of Johnny Depp’s Infamous Viper Room Bar

The Viper Room was once considered the coolest nightspot in all of Hollywood. But ever since one fateful night in 1993, it has become far more renowned as a scene of tragedy. Indeed, the Sunset Strip joint is the place where River Phoenix, the iconic actor, suffered a fatal overdose.

Of course, the death of the Stand by Me star isn’t the only time the rock ’n’ roll landmark has made headlines for all the wrong reasons. In fact, tales of excess litter the venue’s history. These involve everyone from masked metalheads to squeaky-clean soap opera actors. And then there’s the illegal gambling rings, mysterious disappearances and ghostly happenings.

And the building itself has its own checkered past, too. Indeed, long before one-time co-owner Johnny Depp got his hands on the place, The Viper Room was a popular mobster hangout which counted the notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel among its clientele. Here’s a look at how the club gained its infamous reputation.

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The story of The Viper Room begins way back in 1947 when Mickey Cohen, a fearsome gangster, bought a Los Angeles grocery store named Young’s Market. The criminal then reinvented the place as the hottest jazz venue in town, The Cotton Club. Of course, this was all a smokescreen for his more nefarious activities. Indeed, the venue’s basement served as something of a mobster headquarters.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Cotton Club was never far away from trouble. Following major damage caused by a fire, however, the venue became a strip joint named The Last Call in 1950. This new incarnation didn’t last long either, though. Indeed, just a year after opening, the “Rendezvous of the Stars” authorities closed the venue due to breaches of obscenity laws.

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And just 24 hours after the club closed, owner Cohen was indicted on charges of tax evasion. Indeed, alongside his wife, the mobster is said to have owed roughly $1.7 million in today’s money to the Internal Revenue Service. As a result, the mobster sold his financial assets, including his Hollywood club.

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The club underwent several rebrandings and name changes over the next two decades. But it only truly established itself as the place to be once again in the 1970s. Indeed, then known as dive bar The Central, the venue counted daredevil Evil Knievel and cult singer-songwriter Tom Waits among its regular customers. It also appeared on the cover of Sweet’s 1974 LP, Desolation Boulevard.

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The club once again fell on hard times, however, in the 1980s. But it gained a new lease of life when regular performer Chuck E. Weiss teamed up with patrons Johnny Depp and Tom Waits to take over the joint. Subsequently renamed The Viper Room, it quickly became the ultimate party destination for any self-respecting young celebrity.

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Sadly, The Viper Room would prove to be the final haunt for one of those young celebrities. Indeed, on Halloween night in 1993, River Phoenix arrived at the club having been on a mammoth drug-taking session with Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante. And according to close friend Bob Forrest, the actor was even more wasted than usual this time around.

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In fact, Phoenix took a blend of cocaine and heroin commonly known as a Speedball before taking a Valium chaser on the October night in question. The clearly unwell actor then reportedly told friends that he thought he was overdosing. Tragically, the one-time teen idol turned out to be right.

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Soon after, Phoenix collapsed right outside The Viper Room. His brother Joaquin subsequently made a harrowing 911 call, which was famously later broadcast across the world. Despite sister Rain’s best efforts, she couldn’t stop the actor from convulsing. After being rushed to hospital, the star was later pronounced dead. He was just 23 years old.

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The Viper Room closed for a week following the tragedy and quickly became a shrine to the late Phoenix. Indeed, candles, pictures and flowers littered the sidewalk outside the venue. And its walls were adorned with graffiti messages paying tribute to the star. Co-owner Depp, who was present on the night of the 23-year-old’s death, continued to shut the club on Halloween every year until 2004.

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Despite the club’s now macabre setting, The Viper Room continued to draw in celebrities when it reopened. In fact, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto and Jennifer Aniston were just a few of the names who regularly partied at the venue during the 1990s. Unexpectedly, it also briefly employed a celebrity as a bartender.

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Indeed, in 1995 none other than Adam Duritz worked behind The Viper Room’s bar. The Counting Crows frontman was riding high on the success of the band’s debut album, August and Everything After, at the time. But in a bid to keep himself grounded, he took on a bartender position at the Sunset Strip joint.

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Duritz revealed why he chose to take on such an everyday job when he was already a world-famous rock star while talking to USA Today in 1995. He said, “The only people I knew in L. A. were the people who worked at the Viper Room. So that’s where I would hang out. It was fun.”

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The Viper Room has also regularly doubled as a backdrop for various mainstream movies. In 2003, the famous Pink Panther dance routine in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle was shot at the club. And in 2005, the John Travolta-starring Be Cool set numerous scenes at the notorious rock venue.

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The club, however, continued to be associated with substance abuse. On the night of Phoenix’s death, friend John Frusciante had attempted to showcase his musical talents at The Viper Room. But due to his drug-addled state, the troubled star only managed to get through one song. He then vomited and left the stage. Four years later, history, sadly, repeated itself.

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Indeed, in January 1997, Frusciante was again booked to play at The Viper Room, with his bandmates watching from the sidelines. But in an eerie echo of his Halloween 1993 appearance, the guitarist struggled to get through his set. Indeed, his addiction was at its worst at the time and he struggled to even sing a note.

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And just two years after Phoenix’s death, another celebrity almost lost his life in similar circumstances at the club. Indeed, in 1995, co-owner Depp staged a 21st-birthday bash for supermodel and then-girlfriend Kate Moss. And a cocaine-addicted Jason Donovan, who’d shot to fame in the U.K. and Australia in soap opera Neighbours, was in attendance.

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Donovan repeatedly left the The Viper Room during the party to snort cocaine in his hotel room. But after taking one line too many, the star suffered a seizure at the club and was subsequently stretchered out. Thankfully, he lived to tell the tale in his autobiography, recalling, “I knew the symptoms all too well, for it was not the first time this had happened to me. My heart was racing, my vision was blurring and I was becoming disorientated.”

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“I tried to steady myself but my legs buckled under me and I fell to the floor,” Donovan continued. “I am not sure what happened next. But I do know that someone pulled the plug on the music and was calling for an ambulance. A crowd had circled around me and Michael [Hutchence of INXS] was standing over me trying to empty my pockets.”

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Donovan revealed in his memoir that the last thing he remembers from that night is being stretchered out of the club by paramedics. After recovering from the incident, the star was advised by Depp to “take it easy in the future.” Of course, the actor himself would face his own drama involving The Viper Room several years later.

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Indeed, the star was accused of committing fraud by one of his The Viper Room business partners. Anthony Fox alleged that, alongside four other associates, the actor had managed to divert millions of dollars from the venue. Fox was all set to take the stand for the case in late 2001. But then, the plot thickened.

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Fox, however, didn’t turn up to testify in court. In fact, he was never seen by anyone ever again. His pickup truck, which went missing at the same time, was found nearly three weeks later in the Californian city of Santa Clara. But Fox’s whereabouts remain unknown to this day.

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Of course, the incredible timing of Fox’s disappearance means that many suspect foul play. In fact, some tabloid newspapers even speculated that Depp himself played a part. Fox’s lawsuit was later settled by the actor, though, with his share of the club going to the missing man’s daughter.

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Depp’s financial activities aren’t the only scandal to hit The Viper Room since the turn of the century, though. In 2001, Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor was partying while taking a break from recording the band’s album Iowa. After being ejected from the nearby Rainbow Bar & Grill for a spot of shot-glass throwing, Taylor moved on to The Viper Room where he continued to cause havoc.

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Indeed, the normally masked metalhead kicked his foot through the club’s glass window on a dare. Unfortunately for him, an L.A. cop just happened to be on duty nearby and witnessed the whole incident. After spotting the police officer, a drunken and defeated Taylor simply walked over to him and surrendered.

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In a 2011 interview with Spin magazine, a-matter-of-fact Taylor recalled, “I didn’t even try to run; I just walked over and put my hands on the hood. They were very cool about it. They very politely handcuffed me and sat me on the curb right outside The Viper Room.” But the singer’s night got worse from there.

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Taylor continued, “People are coming out and laughing at me. I just start spitting at them and cursing them. The cops throw me in the back of the cop car, and I just passed out in the back seat.” The rock singer later received an order to pay the owners of The Viper Room damages of $500.

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The Viper Room was also the scene of a notorious on-stage brawl that featured in one of the best music documentaries of the ‘00s. Indeed, in DiG!, various members of garage-rock outfit Brian Jonestown Massacre fight each other while playing at the club. It’s one of several scenes which saw the 2004 film compared to cult rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.

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Of course, not every scandal at The Viper Room has involved drugs, violence or alcohol. Indeed, at the turn of the 21st century, the club became the ultimate destination for any celebrity wishing to partake in an illegal poker game. And those who visited include Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio.

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Speaking to 20/20, Molly Bloom talked about how she often hosted these high-stakes gambling games at The Viper Room. And while doing that, she personally raked in an estimated $4 million. In addition, she revealed that the most ungracious loser was one of the most regular participants, Tobey Maguire. She then claimed that the Spider-Man star once made her “bark like a seal who wants a fish” to earn her tip.

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However, things went sour for Bloom when she refused to allow various gangsters into her gambling world and was subsequently assaulted. She also caught the attention of the FBI, who later raided one of her high-stakes events. The hostess then received a sentence of 12 months’ probation after issuing a guilty plea to the charge of illegal gambling.

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In 2017, though, The Viper Room became the subject of an episode of Travel Channel series Ghost Adventures. And given the club’s turbulent past, it was perhaps inevitable that the team of paranormal investigators would find something spooky there. Indeed, several ghostly voices were reportedly captured on tape during a recording at one of the club’s quieter spots.

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When playing these voices back to the woman who ran the venue’s ticket booth for nearly ten years, one particular voice stood out. Indeed, Rita Fiora claimed that a voice uttering, “I get confused,” came from one River Phoenix. In addition, she told the Ghost Adventures team that she also conversed with one of the club’s ghosts through text.

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Club bartender Tommy Black then backed up Fiora’s haunted venue claims. The employee revealed he often felt a dark presence while serving at the club’s bottom bar. As well as watching glasses being flung from the bar with no-one around, Black also claimed to feel pressure on his ribs whenever he walked into the space.

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Then there was the moment when the show appeared to record a guitar playing entirely on its own. And the Ghost Adventures team had one particular theory as to which spirit had taken the time to showcase their talents on the six-string. Indeed, they believed that it was missing co-owner Anthony Fox!

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It appears as though The Viper Room name is, in itself, guaranteed to bring trouble. A nightclub in the Australian city of Melbourne which shares the moniker with the Hollywood bar was forced to close in 2009 due to a whole host of illegal incidents. Alongside two shootings and a string of violent events, authorities arrested one of its co-owners on a drugs charge.

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The Hollywood club has even had to issue legal threats to several establishments with the same name over the years. A Cincinnati joint was forced to change its moniker to The Poison Room, while ex-owner of the L. A. club Darin Feinstein claimed that every dollar that Portland’s version made was “the result of using our name.” There’s also a venue in the Dutch city of Nijmegen which has not only copied the venue’s name, but also its entire décor.

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In 2018, though, there were reports that The Viper Room may possibly shut its doors for good. The L.A. Business Journal stated that the property had been bought alongside three other Sunset Strip buildings in a deal worth $80 million. Its new owners allegedly want to demolish the venue and build luxury accommodation on the site instead.

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